Jimmy Hardy, left, and his father, Deacon Charles “Chuck” Hardy

Racine Community Celebrates Century of Roots in Midwest


RACINE, Wisc. — This past year the community of St. Mesrob’s Armenian Church in Racine celebrated its 100th anniversary with special banquets, picnics, and visits from high-ranking clergy.

Founded by immigrants from Anatolia and Western Armenia at the turn of the 20th century, the Armenian community of Wisconsin has always had its largest stronghold in what might seem like an unlikely place: Racine, a small industrial Rust Belt town on the shores of Lake Michigan, set between the large metropolises of Chicago and Milwaukee.

At the same time very Americanized, yet steeped in Armenian traditions brought by the early immigrants, this unique community has marched to the beat of its own drummer for the past 100 years, and has often anticipated developments that would not be seen in other Armenian-American communities for decades. The tight-knit community life, social outreach and community service, and independent spirit of the Racine Armenians is evident to anyone who has visited the community. These traits are tightly wrapped up with their Armenian heritage and faith, as well as a very specific shared background. With very little immigration since the Genocide Era, most local Armenians trace their ancestry to the small town of Tomarza and its five surrounding villages, in what’s now Central Turkey.

Fr. Yeprem Kelegian

Keepers of The Flame

You would not except someone with the name “Chuck Hardy” to be easily the most traditionalist Armenian in an entire US state. But Deacon Charles Hardy has been the staunch pillar of Racine’s Armenian community for some 50 years. Contrary to his name, both of his parents are Armenian; his father’s surname, “Kherdian,” was too difficult for the officials to spell when he tried to apply for citizenship. After being turned away several times being told “we can’t understand what you’re saying,” Hovhannes Kherdian came up with an anglicized name, “John Hardy,” and finally got his citizenship papers. As for Chuck, his baptismal name is Garabed, which was often anglicized to Charles in that era.

Chuck Hardy was born and raised in Racine and is quick to say that not all Racine Armenians are from Tomarza. “The first Armenians to come to Racine were Kharpertsis, and they eventually brought a Tomarzatsi to act as their cook, and he brought in more Tomarzatsis, and they became the majority.”

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Kherdian’s family was close with the 6 or 10 other families who hailed from Kharpert or nearby areas, like Palu. Most of them, including the Kherdians, were from the village of Khoulakiugh in the Kharpert plain.

Another family of Kherdians in Racine had migrated to Adana before coming to the US. Their son, David Kherdian, became a well-known author, poet, and novelist, who has written extensively about his youth in the Racine Armenian community and is married to prize-winning children’s author and illustrator Nonny Hogrogian. Kherdian is about as different than his distant cousin Chuck as one could imagine; though 8 years older, he was a devotee of the Beat poetry movement of the 1950s, moved to San Francisco in 1960 after graduating college, and taught one of the first college courses on Beat poetry at Fresno State. After he met William Saroyan, the older writer decided to mentor him. Kherdian and Hogrogian are both devotees of the esoteric spiritual teachings of George Gurdjieff.

Racine’s ACYOA chapter in the early 1950s

According to Father Arden Ashjian’s Vijagatsouyts yev Badmoutiun Arachnortagan Temin Hayots Amerigayi, a parish-by-parish history of the Eastern Diocese published in Armenian in 1949, the first Armenian immigrants in Racine were Hagop Markarian, Avedis Der Margosian, and Khachig Torosian, natives of Khoulakiugh. They arrived in 1892 as factory workers, making 12 cents an hour. The three men had come west with a group of compatriots that had originally settled in Troy, NY, and later moved to Waukegan, Ill. to work in a factory there. The draw to Waukegan, interestingly, was the Washburn and Moen Manufacturing Company, whose wire factory was the primary employer of Armenians in Worcester, Mass., well known as the first organized Armenian community in the US.

When Washburn and Moen opened a new factory in 1891 in Waukegan, the company enticed their multiethnic immigrant laborers, including Armenians, to migrate west to work in the new factory. Markarian, Der Margosian, and Torosian continued north from Waukegan, finding different jobs in the factories of Racine, just across the state line. The following year, they were joined by more fellow natives of Khoulakiugh, relocating from Troy and Waukegan. At the time, all of these compatriot factory workers lived together in a rented house, a not-uncommon arrangement for single Armenian immigrant men, and known locally as “bekyar doon” meaning “bachelor house.” (see Bedros Keljik’s Armenian-American Sketches, for a portrait of that time and place, including the Waukegan factory in particular). Generally, a group of immigrant men would rent an entire house and split the expenses equally; they would hire another man to keep house and cook for them, sometimes the cook was the person who rented the house and acted as an organizer. In the case of Racine, the Kharpertsis hired an Armenian immigrant from Tomarza as their cook.

As more and more immigrants arrived from Tomarza, they organized a Racine branch of the Social Democrat Hunchagian Party in 1903, and in 1909, at a meeting in the house where the factory workers lived, they organized the Tomarzatsi Educational Society to send money back in support of the school in their hometown. Eventually the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnagtsoutiun) also formed a chapter.

Most Armenians found jobs working for J.I. Case, manufacturers of farm equipment, and S.C. Johnson, which made wax products. Some opened their own small businesses, such as shoe repairmen; there were also lawyers and other professionals. There were two Armenian grocery stores, side by side — one was patronized by the Hunchags, and one by the Tashnags.

By 1950 the Armenian population was some 1,200 people, with 80 percent having roots in Tomarza as well as from the city of Gesaria and other villages in the region.

Avak Kalfa Akgulian, architect, stonemason and carpenter from Tomarza who built the St. Mesrob altar and renovated the original church

Tomarza, or ‘Little Zeitoun’

Tomarza, which was part of the Everek district of the sanjak of Kayseri (Gesaria in Armenian and Caesarea to the Greco-Romans) in the Ottoman Empire, was apparently settled by Armenians in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Byzantine Empire succeeded in annexing almost all of Historic Armenia in the 11th century by offering the Armenian princes vast estates in the interior of the Greek populated domain immediately to the west, a region known as Cappadocia. Cities such as Sepastia, which already had a significant Armenian population, and Gesaria, an historic stronghold of Greek Christianity, along with their villages, were soon full of Armenians and under the rule of Armenian nobility. When the Byzantines forced Gagik II Bagratuni to hand over the city of Ani in 1044, they compensated him with a fortress called Bizou near Gesaria, and when the Byzantines themselves lost Ani to the conquest of the Turks, Gagik of Kars headed off the Turkish assault on his city and then relinquished it to the Greeks in 1064, being compensated with a place called “Dzamntav.”

The precise locations of Bizou and Dzamentav are still debated, but they are agreed by most to be to the immediate west of Kayseri, in the general vicinity of Tomarza. One of the more cogent arguments is that Dzamentav is a region and not a city; the valley of the Zamanti river where Tomarza sits, and the Tomarzatsis were proud to say that for a brief period in the 11th century, King Gagik of Kars ruled in exile from Dzamentav and the Catholicos Krikor Vgayaser was anointed there and had his seat there for many years (through the intercession of Gagik’s daughter, Princess Maryam with the Empress in Constantinople; Maryam also became lord of the land after Gagik’s death.)

More importantly for the history of Racine, Tomarza had a strong independent streak; it was populated by an overwhelming majority population of Armenians and was ruled by a clique of 4 Armenian “princes” (humorously referred to in Turkish as “chorbaji” or “soup seller”) from different prominent families who were responsible for the 4 quarters of the town. The Armenians only had to answer to a single Ottoman government official backed by a tiny police force; the official ran the town in consultation with the 4 Armenian “chorbajis.”

Group of St. Mesrob Ladies Making Bourma, Monica Heller is second from right

Such an arrangement is reminiscent of Armenian mountain strongholds like Sassoun, Artsakh, Hadjin, and Zeitoun in previous centuries, but is practically unheard of in a barely-defended lowland region such as Tomarza, lying in plain sight in the Kayseri plain. And like those famed mountaineers, the Tomarzatsis were known to openly carry firearms (illegal for most Christians) and even fight the Turks on various occasions. The people of the nearby, more urbane small city of Evereg-Fenesse named a hill outside their town after the Tomarzatsis after a vigilante band from Tomarza showed up one day to protect them from the local Turks and came out victorious in a skirmish with the authorities. Two well-known revolutionaries from Tomarza were Hagop Madaghjian of the Hunchag Party (his brother Toros settled in Racine and was a prominent community member), and Ghazar Ghazarian, known as “Marzbed” of the Tashnag Party (the Racine ARF named their clubhouse the “Marzbed Agoump.”)

Madaghjian survived the 1915 Genocide, but was killed in battle in 1920 defending the town of Hadjin from the Kemalists. Due to their independent and occasionally rebellious nature, the town of Tomarza was nicknamed “Little Zeitoun.”

Tomarza was also known for its religious piety. Father Yeprem Kelegian, former pastor of St. Mesrob’s Armenian Church, attributes the strength of the Racine faith community to their Tomarzatsi ancestry: “From the get go most of the people came from a region which was extremely faithful, Tomarza and its five villages,” he stated.

“They had a monastery, Soorp Asdvadzadzin [Holy Mother of God] with 72 rooms; they trained clergy there, and the word from people that lived in nearby cities is that it was a destination for healing. They also had a parish church in the village, Sts. Peter and Paul. That’s the type of faith they brought over here to America.”

Kelegian stated that St. Mesrob’s parish was home to the first Sunday School in the Armenian Apostolic Church, and to his knowledge the first Bible Study as well.

In keeping with the tradition of Princess Maryam, the women of Tomarza seem to have continually displayed an independent streak in church affairs. There were two nuns in Tomarza in the 19th century, and neither of them were really officially sanctioned by the church. One of them, named Marta, disguised herself as a man and lived in an all-male monastery as “Maroukeh” in order to satisfy her desire for monastic spirituality. It comes as no surprise then, that the Armenian women of Racine have also shown a similar tendency. The “first Bible study” in the Armenian church was started by a woman, Aghavni (Anna) Keishian.

Keishian’s niece, Sarah Dergazarian of Midland, MI, is a 90-year-old retired public school music teacher. Dergazarian shared the story of her Aunt Aghavni who was one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Racine Armenian community.

Dergazarian relates that most of the immigrant Armenian women in Racine in the 1930s could not read or write, including Aghavni’s mother (Dergazarian’s grandmother, Margaret Keishian Hajinian). She did note, however, that Aghavni’s mother had memorized by heart all the appointed Bible readings of each Sunday in the Armenian Apostolic Church, could recite them in Krapar, and also translate their meaning into spoken Western Armenian. The late Fr. Dajad Davidian was fond of quizzing Mrs. Hajinian on any given Sunday while listening with astonishment to her recitation.

The original altar built by Avak Kalfa Akgulian in 1925, currently in the new sanctuary (completed 1973)

During the Genocide, after the family was sent on the deportation, wandering through various cities in the Arab countries. In Damascus, Aghavni, who was a small child, was corralled with a group of other children by an older Armenian woman who wanted to teach them to read and write. For the rest of her days Aghavni remained indebted to that woman. In Racine, Aghavni herself invited a group of interested women to her home on a regular basis. Since none of them could read or write, she would read from the Armenian bible aloud and then explain the lesson that was contained in the story. Dergazarian recalls being awoken from sleep as a small child in her crib, by the Armenian sharagans (hymns) which the women sang at the end of their meeting.

Eventually, the group applied to the priest and asked for use of the church for their meetings. The priest complied and gave a key to the building to Aghavni. “You know how the men in our community are. If you aren’t married, you don’t have status, and if you are a woman, you definitely don’t have status. Aghavni was an unmarried woman with an education, and the attitude of some of the men was ‘who are you to teach me about anything,’” Dergazarian stated. One of the men in the community complained, saying that “women belong at home cooking and doing laundry” according to Dergazarian, and so the priest took the key away from Aghavni, who was forced to continue the meetings in her home. It wasn’t until about a decade later that during his tenure as primate, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan paid a visit to Racine and was asked if such an activity belonged in the church. “Of course they belong in the church,” the primate responded. Aghavni got the key back.

Root River Run, David Kherdian’s memoir about growing up in Racine in the 1940s, published in 1984

Dergazarian also reminisced about the close-knit nature of the Armenian community in Racine. People were always friendly, she stated, and her aunt Aghavni talked to anyone that came to church. “I’ve never seen that in our communities on the East Coast, and not even in Detroit. If you go to an Armenian church in a different city, they’ll just look at you,” she stated. All of the Armenians lived in the same part of town and most Armenian children her age went to the same elementary school. Even today, most of the Racine Armenians live in the same general area and their children go to the same high school.

Prior to 1918, the Racine community was served by the Chicago “parish.” In 1918, the Racine Armenians organized their own parish council, which included H. Poladian, Khachig Dadian, and Avak Kalfa Akgulian, but was still run jointly with the Chicago community. In 1922, the Racine parish officially split off from Chicago, which is why St. Mesrob Church celebrated its 100th anniversary this past year. Initially, the Racine parish council was also responsible for the communities in South Milwaukee, Carrollville, and Kenosha (all in Wisconsin). Later, South Milwaukee would form its own church.

In the early days the church services were held at Wergeland Hall, a Norwegian-American social club. In 1923, it was decided to obtain an Armenian church, either by purchasing a church or building one. The Armenians were advised that it would cost more to build than to buy an old church and in 1924 started the process of fundraising.

In another recurring back-and-forth on women’s involvement, the original Building Committee had 19 members, which included 5 women. The following year, 1925, the women split off and formed their own Ladies’ Guild. At the time, the Armenians had been moving into a neighborhood near State Street previously inhabited by Danes. As the Armenians moved in, the Danes began moving out, and soon the Danish Baptist Church was up for sale. The Armenians purchased the church and on December 25, St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church was consecrated by Bishop Dirayr Hovhannesian. The godparents of the church, Mr. and Mrs. Krikor Keishian, chose the name St. Mesrob in honor of the creator of the Armenian alphabet. As in other communities, much of the fundraising to pay off the mortgage was accomplished by the Ladies’ Guild.

Establishing an Armenian-American Community

Through the initiative of community leader Toros Madaghjian, a native of Tomarza and brother of martyred Hunchag revolutionary Hagop Madaghjian, the first Armenian Church School in America was started in 1935. Aghavni Keishian and her stepfather, Haji Hajinian, along with Madaghjian, initiated the school. At the time, such an idea was considered a Protestant innovation that was foreign to the Armenian people, and Madaghjian especially caught flak when he introduced Protestant hymns in the English language. Eventually, the school’s activity was approved by Archbishop Mampre Kalfayan, with the proviso that traditional Armenian sharagans be sung instead of English hymns. Armenian language school had existed since the 1920s, but decisions by the diocesan authorities forced the community to combine the language school and the church school under one administration which ended up paying relatively little attention to the Armenian language, to Madaghjian’s chagrin.

By the early 1940s, a local youth group had developed associated with the St. Mesrob Church but with the departure of most young men (and three young women) to fight in WWII, it developed into a young women’s group which focused on writing letters to soldiers and “holding down the home front.” The broader Racine Armenian community broke a local record during the government’s push for War Bonds, by purchasing $50,000 worth of bonds at one time.

With the end of the war, the St. Mesrob women’s youth group was transformed into the Racine St. Mesrob chapter of the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America, founded in 1946 by Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. The local chapter was led by Shockey Gengozian, continuing the trend of female leadership, and they hosted the ACYOA National Convention and General Assembly in 1955. Dergazarian, who is Gengozian’s cousin, recalled that other chapters weren’t interested in holding the Convention in Wisconsin, so the Racine delegates played into the big-city prejudice – “we made the theme of our campaign ‘cornstalks’.” That was apparently humorous enough to get the delegates’ vote, and a memorable Convention was held in Racine, which initiated the fundraising by the national ACYOA for a future youth camp, that eventually became St. Vartan Camp (the Ararat Center) which is owned by the Eastern Diocese in Upstate New York.

Teachers and Students of Racine’s “Armenian National ‘Ghevont Tourian’ School”

Keeping Traditions Alive

Many of the original Armenians who emigrated from Tomarza had planned to return to their homeland with earnings, said Dergazarian. With the advent of World War I, this was rendered impossible. Nevertheless, numerous men from Racine signed up to join the Armenian volunteer “gamavor” units in the Caucasus. Those who stayed home gained a positive reputation for the Armenian community by purchasing $80,000 worth of Liberty Bonds. In the early 1920s, General Antranik himself even visited Racine.

When it became clear that the Armenians would stay in Wisconsin, not only was a church purchased and Armenian school instituted but one of the most long-held traditions of the Tomarza Armenians was organized in Racine for the first time in 1923 and every year since, namely the annual madagh. Madagh is a term in the Armenian Apostolic Church for a form of animal sacrifice inherited from pagan times, which has been lent a Christian meaning by blessing the animals before they are slaughtered and distributing the cooked meat to the poor and needy. The Racine madagh is prepared according to a special recipe handed down from Tomarza involving butter, yogurt, bulghur, and meat. The meat is prepared with onions in huge copper kettles and cooked over open fire pits in a local park. The madagh picnic is always held in the summer and serves the purpose of an annual church picnic; it became so popular that the church’s annual budget was paid for from the proceeds of the madagh.

After the 1933 split and the founding of St. Hagop Armenian Church (affiliated with the Prelacy), there were two madagh picnics. St. Mesrob’s madagh picnic of 1940 was one of the most memorable affairs according to locals, where 1,500 people attended. The traditional Armenian band led by old timers always played at these picnics; Ohannes Gurunian, a native of Gesaria, was the bandleader who played the violin on his knee like a kemenche and sang.

Today, out of solidarity, members of both communities attend the others’ picnic; St. Hagop continues the traditional outdoor madagh in late summer, while St. Mesrob sponsors a more toned down madagh prepared indoors for the joint April 24 Genocide Commemoration.

Progressive Leanings and Community Service

Racine Armenians have always been a bit progressive and certainly outside the box. In the political realm too, the Hunchag Party with its Social-Democrat and Marxist leanings was always popular in Racine. One of the early and notable events was the fundraising to buy a tractor to send to Soviet Armenia. Dubbed “the Hunchag Tractor,” it was unveiled at a large picnic and shipped off to Russia, where the authorities promptly sent a letter back to Racine stating that they had no use for American-made tractors, as the Soviet government could manufacture and supply its own. (They kept the unwanted tractor, though.) By the 1960s and ’70s, Racine’s Armenian community, notably through the church, was more active than might be expected in civil rights and social causes.

Current pastor of St. Mesrob, Fr. Avedis Kalayjian (at left), blessing the “Centennial Madagh” this summer

Massachusetts native and later pastor of Watertown’s St. James Church, Fr. Dajad Davidian, was pastor of St. Mesrob for most of the tumultuous years of the 1960s and was a frequent attendee of civil rights marches in the area. He also authored the ACYOA’s controversial “Williams Bay Manifesto,” a sort of Armenian Church youth equivalent of the Port Huron Statement that was drawn up in 1967 when the ACYOA’s convention was held at a retreat center in Williams Bay, Wisc.. Fr Yeprem Kelegian, who looked to Davidian as his mentor, stated that (perhaps surprisingly to some), Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the primate of the Eastern Diocese at the time, was in support of the Manifesto and in support of the Armenian Church being involved in the civil rights struggle and other causes. Kelegian states that the problem was more with the rank and file establishment types that dominated parish councils and other positions of leadership in the community.

In the late 1990s, Kelegian, who grew up in nearby West Allis, Wisc., became the pastor of St Mesrob. Through his tenure in the first two decades of the 21st century until his retirement, Kelegian was known throughout the Eastern US as the most progressive clergyman in the Armenian Church. He used to joke that at any given Armenian event he was “to the left of almost everyone in the room.” He was also an inspiration to the youth, as he corralled them to be involved in the world outside the four walls of the Armenian Church and outside the ethnic community. He pushed for the community to be involved with soup kitchens, inter-communal dialogue on racial issues, and other causes to the benefit of the wider community. In the Racine community, he found a receptive audience for his initiatives. “Before I got here, they were already involved in feeding the poor. All I did was increase activity in going out into the world,” said Kelegian. “First, helping those in need. Once a month we have a crew that goes out helping Habitat for Humanity. I have a core of 30 people that rotate in. The local soup kitchen downtown, we are in charge of it 13 times out of the year.”

He added, “We are one of the sustaining members of the food pantry on the North Side of Racine. Dealing with equity for immigrants, and illegal immigrants and caring about the society around us. The church is a part of a social justice outfit, WISDOM, dealing with racism in our city.”

In his retirement, Kelegian has embarked on a series of YouTube videos highlighting his thoughts on society, faith, Armenia, as well as interviewing young Armenians who are making a difference.

Racine’s Armenian Young Ladies Group, which sent letters and gifts to servicemen in WWII.

The Racine Armenians Today

In 1973, the St. Mesrob community built a new church in the suburbs. Avak Kalfa’s handcrafted altar was moved to the new sanctuary where it is still used for badarak. Kelegian stated that “when I do morning service, I feel like I’m back in Tomarza.”

Though the youth often move away to find jobs in larger cities, the pull of Racine’s special close-knit community often draws them back; some will take a job in Chicago, live on the north side of the suburbs, and drive up to Racine on the weekend to go to church or to an event.

“There is a genuine goodness about the people. Everybody is very friendly, very humble, very modest, and they’re just good people,” said Danny Mantis, whose family came from Waukegan but was drawn to the Racine community in his youth and was motivated by Kelegian to become active in the church and Armenian community.

Monica Heller, who grew up in the church and traces her ancestry to Tomarza, stated that “Everybody kind of came from the same area, we have the grandparents, children, great-grandchildren, that what ties people back to the church, is the family, with the culture and religion, because you can’t get the family and culture at any other church.”

She added, “It’s really nice to have a small community because you can go to anybody in the church anytime you need anything….it really is our own Armenian village, everybody is connected to each other.” She points out that the two sides of the community are coming together more and more, with the St. Mesrob and St. Hagop churches jointly sponsoring a summer day camp for the kids that’s “Armenian focused.”

Fr Avedis Kalayjian, the young pastor who has replaced Kelegian, approaches ministry with a combination of traditional and modern ideas, and is certainly creative, as evidenced by his creation of Armenian Alphabet Pasta.

The church has been involved in various controversies such as ordaining girls as acolytes or including more English in the services. But this is nothing new to the community; according to Sarah Dergazarian even her mother who was a child during the Genocide had been a candle bearer in the 1920s.

She attributes the independent spirit of the Racine community to the fact that there aren’t so many other larger Armenian communities around to “look over their shoulder” and criticize them. Some might attribute it to their roots in Tomarza. But whatever it is, the Racine Armenian community has always been unique.


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